'An anarchic spirit, a revolutionary and a farce of nature' | Becky Fury remembers Tony Allen, a pioneer who always gave the audience what it didn’t know it wanted

'An anarchic spirit, a revolutionary and a farce of nature'

Becky Fury remembers Tony Allen, a pioneer who always gave the audience what it didn’t know it wanted

Tony Allen – the godfather of alternative comedy – died at the age of 78 on Friday. Here his friend and fellow comedian Becky Fury remembers a uniquely fearless performer and irrepressible anarchic spirit...

Tony Allen was born, like most people. But unlike most people, he was born on March 4, 1945, in the last months of the Second World War in Hayes, Middlesex, to working-class parents. 

Tony attributed much of the anarchic politicisation that informed his whole potent life and oeuvre to his upbringing. 

FamilyTony’s mum had flourished as a result of the unprecedented freedom women on the home front experienced during the war, and after she had struggled to readjust when these freedoms were redacted. Mrs Allen regaled young Tony with tales from her gilded age and expressed her sense of injustice regarding its passing. Mrs Allen was unknowingly talking to Tony about women’s liberation, a cause he would later champion. 

Tony’s dad had also had a good war. According to Mr Allen his time as an infantryman in North Africa, had been something of a holiday, mainly involving getting a suntan or ‘lying by a gunner and staring at the stars’. So, unintentionally Mr & Mrs Allen indoctrinated young Tony into becoming a utopian. Into a belief that other, better worlds are possible. A belief that underpinned everything Tony strived for in his art and life as an authentic anarchist and as an authentic revolutionary, comic thinker. 

After blissfully misspending the first part of his youth working odd jobs (‘The odder the better’)  and, most formatively as a shark in the pool halls of 1950s Hayes, Tony became caught up in the revolutionary counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. 

He began squat​ting in North London and lived, until his death in a housing cooperative in Ladbroke Grove that he and former squatters had created in a row of abandoned Georgian houses they had been  gifted by the council. Why? Because it was the 1970s and why, thought the council, would anyone ever want to live in a tatty terrace in grubby old Ladbroke Grove. Today it would be worth millions.

During this early and fertile period of anarchic creativity, Tony was also involved in the embryonic street art movement, wrote for situationist journal The International Times and founded a performance troupe called Rough Theatre. His friend and co conspirator Tom Watson remembered an incident from this time… 

We had written a kids’ play about comic book characters where a mad scientist eventually blows up the world. The explosion was simulated by a theatrical device, called a Marron.  It (usually) went bang, it was great fun, and it was a very successful show. 

It was at this time the police were very hot on any potential terrorists who they thought might be living in squats. Both the IRA and the Angry Brigade were active. One morning there was banging on the door at about 4am. Police were shouting "GET DRESSED". They were raiding London squats looking for suspects. 

Being a good Catholic boy I got dressed. While they were searching the house I could hear the police talking, ‘hasn’t he got dressed yet?’. 

‘Tony wouldn’t put any clothes on. He’s a big chap, and to be honest quite well endowed. He managed to make them feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome.

They seemed very interested in his diary. We realised afterwards why… It was full of  entries about our play, with references to bombs that didn’t go off.

No business signAs Tony observed in an early stand-up set: ‘I came to Ladbroke Grove for free love and squatting, I settled for sexual politics and a licensed deri’ [a licensed derelict, or squat]

In keeping with his political activism, Tony also performed regularly with his Full-Frontal Anarchy Platform at Speakers’ Corner, which eventually evolved into a fledgling stand-up routine. 

As stand-up comedy hadn’t become a thing yet, he began looking for places to perform, finally hitting on the newly founded Comedy Store in 1979. Two months later he founded Alternative Cabaret with Alexei Sayle and together they ran a regular club in the back bar of the Elgin pub, Ladbroke Grove

Tony was a resident comedian in the early days of The Comedy Store (1979–1980) and took over from Alexei as resident MC early in 1981, where he was described as ‘a tall, willowy figure who has the air of a Lenny Bruce mixed with the vulnerability of Tommy Cooper’. According to an early article about him, Allen's style of stand-up was not so much jokes and gags, as having ‘a funny take’ on the world and the lives and loves therein.  

Always the risk-taker and one to break new ground, he was always innovating. These experiments, (like all experiments) had mixed results.  A 1986 fanzine noted: ‘I’ve seen Tony Allen do minutes of cursing, swearing, abusing of hecklers and audience alike and equally I've seen him do sets of such comic brilliance as to take your breath away and send you home to your bed-sit on wings!’

In 1980, Tony and Alexei were the first alternative comedians to take their solo stand-up acts to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe  under the title Late Night Alternative. Alexei joked recently that any comedian doing Edinburgh owes him and Tony royalties 

Street performing

Tony also appeared in an episode of The Young Ones, Party, essentially as himself. He’s the anarchist who impresses Rik with his chat about ‘blowing up pandas’.

Tony has a long list of TV credits but they aren’t listed here as he actively avoided becoming television famous for his entire career because, as Gil Scott Heron will tell you, the revolution will not be televised. 

He would most want to be remembered for being a passionate defender of stand-up comedy as a risk-taking, living art form. One that is as delicate as it is bolshy and one that can be easily stifled by the demands and production values of television.  As a practitioner of stand-up that uses the privilege of the platform to give the audience what it didn’t know it wanted, rather than the same old, same old that it has come to accept. 

He was a fearless performer and performed comedy and stand-up until he became too ill to want to bother any more. In his heyday he toured solo shows and also successfully supported bands like The Clash and Killing Joke, performing his stand up set before the band headlined.  He once performed a gig at Glastonbury after accidentally getting involved in a fracas involving two undercover policeman which ended with him being CS-gassed. He still successfully performed his set.   

An old hippy at heart, he was comfortable with his mortality and as a comedian he found solace in finding humour in everything, even his own death. As a result his curtain call was attending (and walking out of) his own wake in August, in his stomping ground of Ladbroke Grove. A star-studded gala event, it was appropriately held in an unassuming smallish room above a pub. The sort of intimate space which Tony loved to play as a performer. The event was humorously entitled This Was Your Life.

In his last days (he was 78 and had a terminal condition; but also throat cancer) Tony was being looked after by a close friend and lover from his Squatting days; Andy. 

He passed away quietly in the early hours of Friday morning, in his own bed, under his own pink duvet, having discharged himself from hospital against the doctors’ orders. He was in good spirits, enlivened, by socking it, one last time, to the man and appropriately recounted this final adventure in the format of a stand-up routine to anyone who was granted audience. 

Not so much an inpatient but an impatient, Tony was an anarchic spirit, revolutionary and farce of nature to the last.

You must be righteously knackered, that was quite a ride. Journey well, Tony Allen.   

Tony Allen, godfather of stand-up comedy
March 4, 1945 - December 1, 2023

Published: 3 Dec 2023

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